SHAOLIN JAZZ: Triumphant

DC natives Gerald Watson and DJ 2-Tone Jones take mash up culture a step higher with a full multimedia art project called Shaolin Jazz: The 37th Chamber.

Interview: Darrion Beckles

A reunion of two distant relatives, in the Shaolin Jazz: The 37th Chamber art series, which includes a mixtape, a roving art exhibition, a series of viral videos, Gerald Watson (a marketing specialist) and DJ 2-Tone Jones (resident DJ at the W hotel DC explore the deeper links between Jazz and Hip-Hop, by pairing up classic jazz tunes with various verses from members of the Wu-Tang clan.

What is The 37th Chamber?

Gerald: The 37th chamber is the undiscovered country right there. You felt like you’ve done it all, you’ve seen it all, you’ve experienced it all; you have not. You normally use 5% of your brain. That [other] 95% is what The 37th Chamber is about—pushing your level of thinking.

2-Tone: I would add to that and say that this project brings out that underlying connection between Jazz and Hip-Hop that hasn’t really been examined or looked at. We’re kind of re-exposing how well Hip-Hop samples jazz, like Leaders of the New School and Digable planets. Sonically, rhythmically— there’s a connection [between the genres]; and they do work [together]. The 37th Chamber [project] is a bi-product of our being from both of those genres.

Why Wu-Tang?

Gerald: I was curating this art exhibition called The Classics. I like to create these cultural projects to help educate people about the genre, which includes a series of interviews, a mixtape for each [project] and a [compilation] video that also highlights music videos from the genre as well. So about every two to three months or so I would highlight a different genre of music that I was into from rap music, to soul and rock. I would hit 2-Tone up about deejaying these exhibitions. He was actually cool enough about letting me use his rare [and personal] album covers for the first exhibition on Hip-Hop. So people would walk into a gallery of rare album covers— two floors of just straight up covers.

With jazz being the last [exhibition], I wanted to do things differently. So while interviewing Logan, a graphic designer, who actually creates jazz-inspired Wu-Tang covers for his i-Pod playlists, which is kind of rad. I thought one of the albums, the Beetles/Wu-Tang mixtape, was really interesting. From there the idea popped in my head: “A jazz Wu-Tang album…. that would be kinda ill.” So I asked him if he’d ever created a jazz Wu-Tang cover. His response was no, but that he’d be down to do one. The light bulb had already gone off at that point. I hit 2-Tone up because he was already into [making] creative mixtapes. He was with it. Got back to Logan. Logan was down. So that’s how Shaolin Jazz came to be.

Did you get any feedback from the group, from Wu-Tang?

Gerald: Basically the way Wu works is there’s Wu-Tang Corporate, and then there’s Wu-Tang the individual artists. As far as the corporate side, they’ve actually plugged the project on Twitter, given us positive remarks about it and posted part of our video on their blogs. But once we get things solidified on our end in terms of live shows and a panel discussion—really diving into some of the cultural connections and parallels and things of that nature, we’d like to reach out to the members individually. From what we understand they’re down.

Can you name some other rap artists that you would have considered?

2-Tone: This is more geared to the rappers, who in their delivery and the cadence of the rhyme scheme share the same devices with jazz, like improvisation, even scat. When you look at people like Pharoahe Monch, ODB at times, and groups like Leaders of the New School and Organized Confusion, they would be the easiest to identify. They have a style that you can equate to Cab Calloway and even Al Jarreau. The similarities between the lyrics, delivery, music, rhythms…I can take a handful of groups from the 90s, pair them up with the right selection and it would sound like they’re [actually] rapping over the track. An example of that is the Method Man track [in the Shaolin Jazz series] where he’s rhyming over Ramsey Louis. There are parts where he says a set of words and it is exactly how the rhythm in the song is being played out. Its almost like he’s hitting the note at the same time, in the same fashion.

I hear you want to enter the academic world with your project…

2-Tone: We’ve gotten some interest from different schools. They’re a lot of schools that have creative curriculums and programs based around the culture of Hip-Hop music. And we’ve always had an interest talking about these things even before the whole idea [for the project came about].

We had this cat from NPR who really broke us nationally. We had no idea who he was, but we were thankful that he was aware—We’re very interested in doing more of that, talking to and educating people on the [musical] connection. We would also like to talk about how these cats are putting their ideas together and how creativity develops on a variety of levels including the socio-economic. The conversation is limitless.

So is that the underlying purpose of this project?

Gerald: It was very evident that when people think about jazz and Hip-Hop and how they might compare, some people overlook the deeper connection. We feel that a lot of the discussion has been kind of surface. For us it’s more like, lets look at jazz and Hip-Hop’s similarities overall and throughout their existence. And there needs to be better documentation where some of this stuff actually came from.

How important is this type of thing for the current generation?

2-Tone: Well, what really happened back when is getting a bit skewed. Groups like Wu-Tang, Pharcyde, Souls of Mischief and Freestyle Fellowship are not being recognized like that. Everyone didn’t sound the same back then like they do now. We know of groups like Outkast who are always willing to evolve, and artists like Snoop and Dres because of what they did back then and continue to do, but it’s like folks don’t even recognize others.

Gerald: I went to a party that 2-Tone dj’d on the University of Maryland campus, three maybe two years ago. I’m hanging by the dj booth and this girl asks, “Does the deejay have any Wu-Tang?”

2-Tone: Yeah, that’s what she said.

Gerald: And so, I said ‘Yo, that’s dope…’ So 2-Tone throws on some Wu-Tang, I go back to her and she was like, “Oh, this isn’t Wu-Tang?!” And I’m like, ‘Come again?’

Then she was like “Nahhh, there’s a dance called the Wu-Tang. It’s some Baltimore club stuff.” She didn’t know who Wu-Tang Clan the group was. It was like we were saying the same thing, but speaking in different languages.

2-Tone: That track “Do the Wu-Tang” has no reference to Wu-Tang Clan whatsoever. The dance doesn’t even have a [Wu-Tang] sample. It’s like they just heard the name Wu-Tang and said, “Alright, lets go make a dance.”

Gerald: I was dumbfounded. It’s almost sad hearing that.

2-Tone: We’re hopeful this kind of project brings a little more awareness.

How does the growing response to your project make you feel?

2-Tone: People have hit us up from Russia and Japan— It’s very, very humbling. But we’re also fully aware that we’ve only physically done events in NY and DC and we’ve only released the music on a few sites. So there are still many people out there who have no idea this thing exists. But we’re optimistic that when they do find out, they’re going to be into it as much as the other folks who have already checked it out.

So what’s next for the duo of Gerald and 2-Tone Jones?

2-Tone: We definitely enjoyed this concept here with jazz and Wu-Tang. There is definitely potential for doing something similar with other groups, but we want to continue to push the envelope.

Gerald: Oh yeah, the next project will be a lot of fun. It’s going to be raw.

Download The 37th Chamber mixtape from the Shaolin Jazz series.

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